National campgrounds located in the United States that require highly competitive reservations attract higher numbers of white, high-income tourists than campsites that do not require reservations, according to a study recently released by outdoor recreation researchers at the University of Montana.
The federal government’s online campground reservation struggles to cope with the growing popularity of outdoor recreation and not adequately finding ways to provide equitable access to all.
Since making an online reservation requires high-speed internet access and an understanding of how the system functions, only a few low-income and novice campers could secure the most sought-after sites, as per the study.
Studies have found that fewer minorities do not have jobs that permit them to schedule an entire vacation at least six months in advance, which is typically the period required under the Federal system.
Will Rice, an assistant professor at the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation in Missoula, collaborated with colleagues to devise a unique method to determine who was winning the coveted national parks, monuments, and recreation area online reservations online, which are highly competitive.
Utilizing cellphone location-tracking information provided by the companies operating applications on smartphones, the researchers tracked reserved camp visitors through the zip code in which they reside and connected that to U.S. Census data on income and ethnicity.
Campsites that require reservations receive more visitors from areas with significant percentages of white residency and higher annual income.
“Two-thirds of North American residents camp at least once a year, so this is really affecting the majority of U.S. residents,” said Rice.
Rice said that studies have shown that camping’s popularity grew during the pandemic, and there was a five-fold rise for first-time campers. He added that, unlike outdoor activities like skiing and hiking, people of color are highly represented in camping.
“Camping is something that is pretty representative of the U.S. population, in terms of who is doing it,” Rice said. “So to see the opposite trend potentially in national parks, that means we’re seeing camping becoming more exclusive through this one reservation system. This is stuff that affects everyone, all social groups across all incomes.”
Rice said that users might compete with 19,000 other users for a campsite with 57 spots. According to a report, they may also have challenges in using the federal campground and cabin reservation system, such as lack of experience in using it and differences in time zones.
A study from the Pew Research Center in 2021 found that “Black people and Latino people remain less likely than White adults to say they own a traditional computer or have high-speed internet at home.”
“To use these systems, you need high-speed internet, which can be a problem for some campers, particularly in remote places like we have in Montana,” he explained. “You also need flexibility to plan your trip for six months from now. People with lower-income jobs often don’t have the ability to set vacations that far in advance.”
Rice said that the gaps that allow richer, whiter people to get those spots have been further exacerbated in recent years due to the rise of companies that can, for a fee, alert customers the moment a campsite becomes available.
He thinks that one option, now used in some Yosemite campgrounds, could be a lottery program for long-term reservations and regularly.
“We’re hoping for funding at UM to look deeper into the lottery system to see if it works,” Rice said.
The study for UM was carried out by associate professor Jennifer Thomsen and graduate students Jaclyn Rushing and Peter Whitney, with funding from UM’s Center for Population Health Research.
Rice said they obtained phone data of more than 3,000 users and examined five campgrounds across the United States, including sites located in Colorado, Utah, and Oklahoma.
Rice said that America’s campgrounds were initially “conceptualized by the leisure class to emulate the suburbs.”
“There has always been an aspect of exclusivity to the national parks,” Rice said. “And to a large degree, they remain exclusionary.”
This article originally appeared on Missoulian.